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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #2 (January 11, 2005), page 15.
Intersection of looks, lives, heavens
Green Mountain, White Cloud
By François Cheng
Translated by Timothy Bent
St. Martin’s Press, 2004
Hardcover, 224 pages, $22.95
At midlife, traditional Taoist healer Dao-sheng is still gripped by love. His is not a love confirmed daily by a good wife or even by a bad one. This love never left his bones through 30 years of exile, not in numbing slave labor in China’s icy north, not in refuge at mountaintop monasteries. This love story began when teenager Dao-sheng was playing in a traveling theater troupe before a banquet of two powerful land-owning families. Dao-sheng innocently glanced up from sawing his erhu and made eye contact with a young woman of high birth, Lan-ying. Slender Orchid.
"When he had the chance to look … again, he was overjoyed to see that the young woman continued to look at him; she smiled, an act of unbelievable candor. The lanterns and candles seemed to dim; the only light came from the intersection of their gazes."
That "look," his joy, and her smile were as illicit as electric. Old Lord Lu’s daughter Lan-ying was promised to the Zhao family’s Second Young Lord. The itinerant musician’s insolence and the act’s challenge to social order were summarily addressed. Dao-sheng got a good beating, a dark jail cell, then hard labor in the Barbarian northern states.
As the story goes, the young woman knew nothing about all this backstage drama until three decades later when Dao-sheng, driven by a single-minded longing to rekindle his heart’s embers, shows up in the guise of a lowly beggar at kindly Lady Lan-ying’s kitchen door. This plot should end our stereo- typical, not to mention traditional Chinese notions of stoic surrender to fate. Old Doctor Dao-sheng is a bit of a Steelhead Salmon, stubbornly defying Ming-Era social conventions, as well as his Tao Master’s teachings, on the virtue of sublime acquiescence.
Green Mountain, White Cloud is French writer François Cheng’s second novel. It is a retelling of a handwritten true tale originally titled The Story of the Man in the Mountain. The account was penned sometime around 1650 by an anonymous contemporary of the two love-possessed characters. That invaluable old manuscript was brought to France during the 1950s by a scholar in residence in Abbey Royaumont, outside Paris. Mr. Cheng happened upon it during a conference organized at the Abbey some years after he emigrated from China. In his own words, he fell under the story’s spell. While reading it he was incapable of touching anything else. After finishing it, he says he couldn’t think of anything else.
According to Mr. Cheng, some more years passed but the "love story involving two extraordinary people" never left his mind. He writes "the mere thought of it brought a stab of regret and longing." When Mr. Cheng returned to Abby Royaumont, he was shocked, then nearly despaired, to find the manuscript had un- accountably disappeared. Perhaps not surprisingly, the story of sweetly obsessed lovers also obsessed Mr. Cheng until he reconstituted it and them from his own memory. The result: Green Mountain, White Cloud.
François Cheng’s retelling includes dialogue between aging Doctor Dao-sheng and two tall, scholarly if hairy, strangers. Jesuits. They travelled the entire Eurasian continent’s length during less than accommodating times for Love. Their devotion was likewise based on bare faith and quiet passion rather than actual reward. "It is because of love that we do not die," says the gray-blue-eyed traveler, though he and Dao-sheng are likely not reading the same sheet music — "for it is through love that we are saved."
Green Mountain, White Cloud is an understated but completely compelling love story. Mr. Cheng has combined what we have come to expect from a delicate Chinese literary approach with what we ordinarily identify with Western sensibilities — self-absorbed and all-consuming love. The clichés of Orientalism that have so long served the interests of keeping East and West contrary, are lyrically lost in Mr. Cheng’s new emotional geography.
François Cheng received the Prix Femina award for his first novel, The River Below. In 2001, the Académie Française awarded him the Grand Prix for Lifetime Contribution, and the following year he was the first Chinese Frenchman elected to membership in the Académie.